Northwest Missouri State basketball continues to raise bar

Brandon Zenner
St. Joseph News-Press, Mo. (TNS)
Northwest Missouri's Trevor Hudgins (12) is pressured by Flagler's Derrick Ellis Jr. (1) during Thursday's semifinal in NCAA Division II men's Elite Eight at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind. Northwest went on to win the national championship. [Denny Simmons/Evansville Courier & Press via AP]

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The latest college basketball season was unlike any in Ben McCollum's career. In the end, when trophies were raised with confetti falling after an 80-54 win by Northwest Missouri State against West Texas A&M in the NCAA Division II National Championship, it was ultimately a familiar ending.

"It was probably the most difficult one," said McCollum, the 12-year head coach of his alma mater. In Division II basketball, finding a stretch as consistent and dominant as that of the current Bearcats is likely impossible.

Dating back to the collegiate debuts of junior guards Trevor Hudgins and Diego Bernard, Northwest is 97-3. The two tournaments they competed in, they won national titles. The lone postseason taken away by COVID-19 saw Northwest end the season ranked No. 1 with a 32-1 record.

As a moderator read the accolades of recent years, which also includes an NCAA-high 43 straight wins on neutral floors, senior Ryan Hawkins found it hard to comprehend.

"It's crazy when you actually hear that and think about it," he admitted. "That's quite an impressive feat for our last three years."

And even while donning a national championship hat and shirt, Hawkins alluded to what makes the program the standard in Division II.

"Every day you wake up, and we go to the gym to get better. It's having that approach every single day, that process that's gotten us to this point," Hawkins said, "and we've gotta make sure we continue to do that."

As to what made the season challenging, aside from competing in arguably the nation's best conference and region, is the battle every team faced. Northwest made it just three games into the year before facing a COVID-19 pause for 23 days.

During the postseason, McCollum shared how the team got through without missing a beat. The staff arranged for a shooting gun to be moved to his house, allowing his team to take turns participating in solo shooting activities.

This in the middle of December, a time that welcomes bitter cold and winds to Maryville.

"We had to find a way to stay in shape," Hawkins said. "There were days where it was cold, but we still had guys individually going out and shooting. We'd still get conditioning out at the football field. We'd be getting our work done on our own."

One week after their return to the court, Northwest suffered its first loss in exactly 13 months 84-82 in overtime to No. 5 Washburn. The Ichabods won again on a buzzer-beater beyond half-court to claim the MIAA Tournament title at Bearcat Arena.

Aside from those two losses by a combined three points, the lessons learned from the initial defeat provided Northwest with an edge to still stand head-and-shoulders above the MIAA.

"We had to do a lot of soul searching and ... we had to get our innocence back," McCollum said, noting a concept from hall of famer Pat Riley called 'The Innocent Climb.'

"When you have a lot of success, sometimes you lose that innocence piece to it and you accidentally want more and more. Our whole entire program, we had to make sure we got that innocence and get back to not caring about anything other than winning."

And win they did.

The final 24 games of the season, Northwest lost just once and won 18 times by double-digits, including an Elite Eight record margin of victory of a combined 79 points. Outside of an MIAA Tournament title game loss to Washburn and an overtime regional championship win, Northwest faced zero resistance in the postseason.

It even prompted opposing coaches to ask, 'Why are they playing Division II?'

"That team is not a Division II team," West Texas A&M coach Tim Brown said after the national championship. "That team, I think they could beat half of the teams in Division I. I think they're actually in the wrong tournament. I think they should be in the Division I tournament this year — they're that good."

The success won't be accepted or accredited to anybody personally in the program, always deflecting to other coaches, players, managers all throughout the past 12 years. What it has done is put an outside notice on what's going on in Maryville.

Since losing by six to Duke in an exhibition prior to the 2019-20 season, it's become a running joke on social media about if the Blue Devils will accept a rematch. That due to two National Player of the Year candidates and four other legitimate all-conference candidates who possess a wide array of skills.

At the head of it is McCollum, who earned career win No. 300 Saturday. He accomplished the feat in just 378 games, and only eight others have reached the milestone quicker.

Among those on the list: Adolph Rupp, Jerry Tarkanian and Roy Williams. He was nine games under .500 his first two seasons. He's won 21-plus games every year since.

"I think in order to really reach some kind of pinnacle, there needs to be some of that to be able to soul search. Where the program's come, I wish I could go through every single person that had a part of building this program because it's far from me," McCollum said. "It's pretty neat to look back at some of that stuff and see how far we've come."

Northwest scored 2,485 points this year and graduates just 30 of those points in Jaran Richman and Daric Laing.

Even with where Northwest stands, the current run doesn't show any signs of letting up.

"I don't think there's been many better, if there is any better," McCollum said. "If you look back when we get to a certain point, I don't know that there is.

"For these kids to perform like that ... it's pretty unbelievable — unprecedented, really."